The hot, sticky air enveloped us immediately after we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, more frequently referred to as Saigon. A warm welcome. We peeled off our outer layers, necessary in rainy Hong Kong. The humidity reminded me of New Orleans, and even more so, Thailand – two of my favorite places.
Just outside the domestic arrivals hall, a bustling crowd waited for arriving family members and foreigners in need of a taxi. We were meeting Silvia and James who were flying in from China where they visit Silvia’s family each year.
Reunited at our new destination, we all hopped in a big taxi – five people, four bags and two stops, struggling to come up with the 250,000 dong it cost us (about $12 USD) because we had no concept of the tens and hundreds of thousands we were dealing with in the local currency. Two thousands were confused for twenty thousands as we fumbled over the zeroes on each note, but eventually we scraped together the money.
Anna, my mom and I jumped out of the taxi at the Blue Diamond hotel. Located just a few blocks from Ben Thanh Market in District 1, the hotel, although a bit outdated, is a great budget option if you share the room. We booked a surprisingly spacious room with two twin beds (intended for two) but were able to all fit easily when we pushed the beds together. The street, Thủ Khoa Huân, is filled with similar options in the same price range.
In the morning James and Silvia walked 20 minutes to our hotel from Le Meridien. They ate at our buffet for $6 USD each, the cost for non-guests. That’s high by Vietnamese standards but a steal in comparison to the breakfast options at their hotel.
Fueled for the day, we walked out towards Ben Thanh Market. The warmth that felt welcoming the night before had become oppressive under the scolding morning sun. We didn’t make it far before I realized I needed a thick layer of sunscreen. We discovered the local convenience stores sell little bottles, which lasted surprisingly long despite our frequent and liberal applications.
We entered Ben Thanh from the rear entrance and were greeted with the smell of raw meat and seafood. The smell was a bit much, especially as it lingered in the morning heat. Beyond the strange piles of intestines and baskets filled with jumping shrimp and shells stretching open then close again, we wandered into the sickly sweet scent of overripe produce, fresh cut flowers and durian (the stinkiest fruit in the world).
I picked up my pace and moved forward with the (mostly) stench-free section of souvenirs and home goods in sight. When we all reached this safe haven we veered right down one of the long aisle and entered the labrynth. Stalls were stacked high with wooden chopsticks, colorful fans and coconut bowls lacquered and decorated in intricate patterns with shell.
The vendors quickly offered their favorite English phrases. “What are you looking for? Look here, look here! I give you good deal! You want a t-shirt? What are you looking for?”
Some aggressively reached out to touch our arms, but it’s just the hectic way of the market, as is their persistent haggling. What is off-putting becomes thrilling if you can negotiate a price you like.
After just ten minutes we decide we’ve had enough and follow the sunlight pouring through the nearest exit, empty handed.
We left one chaotic scene behind only to enter another. Five, maybe six, lanes of traffic – it’s hard to tell as the cars and motorbikes condense to pass through the traffic circle outside the front entrance of the market.
We had already learned two things here: to always wear sunscreen and how to survive the hectic scene inside Saigon’s best-known market. Next we got a crash course for our third lesson, how to cross the street in Vietnam.
All together we stepped into the road. Without looking at any one driver in particular, we watched oncoming traffic and moved forward as a unit. Bikes and cars drifted around us and we steadily made our way to the other side. I love the busyness that contrasts this seemingly easygoing city.
Before long we were crossing the street like pros.
It didn’t take much effort to find our next destination. The Bitexco Financial Tower stands high above the rest of the skyline. We meandered towards it, occasionally looking up to take stock of our progress towards the skyscraper.
The tower sits just across from an outdoor market, great for cheap eats and street food. The Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor is the tower’s main attraction, advertising views of the city below. Entry costs about 200,000 dong (about $10).
Instead we opted to go to Cafe Eon on the 50th floor. We had read online that it is a cheaper option, and instead of paying for the view, you pay for a cup of coffee or a pastry.
It was difficult to find the entrance at first because all of the elevators visit staggered floors, and the ones available to the public only go to the shopping mall levels. We took an escalator to the second floor and wandered uselessly until I spotted a guard who kindly pointed us to a hostess with a stand discreetly emblazoned with the Cafe Eon logo. The hostess escorted us to a private set of elevators, one of which led us upstairs to the cafe.
Most of the cafe is surrounded in floor to ceiling glass windows, allowing for views of the city sprawl below. This city looks like it goes on forever!
Can you see the large, low building with a red roof in the center above? That’s Ben Thanh Market. And just to the left of it is the traffic circle where we learned to cross the street!
The flow of traffic seemed so slow from afar, which is crazy since the motorbikes flew by when we were standing there earlier.
An espresso cost around 100,000 dong, a little pricey, but not so bad when you’re a newly minted millionaire…
I hadn’t realized, but my family ordered cupcakes (green tea and vanilla) as a surprise because it was my birthday. I even heard them place the order, but somehow didn’t put two and two together!
After enjoying the views and the delicious cream cheese frosting, we headed out to explore more of the city. Like the good tourists we are, we stopped at Dunkin Donuts…
A bit different then the flavors we have at home. And Starbucks…
Exactly the same as the ones at home. Except you only get an allotted amount of time to use their free wifi. We used our 30 minutes to find our lunch spot, Pho Quynh, a pho spot recommended by another traveler. With directions in hand, we set back out on the road. Stopping to look for good motorbike rentals along the way – Phạm Ngũ Lão had a lot of options.
At the end of the trip, my cousins said this was their favorite pho. It looked and smelled great, however they don’t offer a pho chay (vegetarian option) so I got banh opla, a deconstructed egg sandwich.
As evening fell, the walking vendors came out offering all sorts of toys and trinkets. We didn’t understand at first but sat down in the park near Ben Thanh, Công viên 23 Tháng 9, and watched the locals play.
The game looked a lot like hacky sack but it was played with a feathered toy that looked like a birdie. The locals circled up and kicked the toy back and forth with impressive skill and funny tricks (like jumping to the side and kicking from behind their backs). The park was filled with people playing! A student told me it was called da cau.
How hard could it be? So we bought are own and circled up. Turns out it’s way harder than it looks. We fumbled the toy several times and a local stepped in to help. Much to his dismay we proved to be hopeless. He hobbled over to his backpack and pulled out a frisbee with a grin. Now that, we could play…
By the time we looked for dinner, it had gotten late and many of the street vendors had closed. Fortunately there was a large street food market just down the street from our hotel. It stays open late, offers a variety of foods and hosts live bands at night.
It’s especially great to go with a group so everyone can order separately and reconvene at a picnic table to enjoy the meal. I got a (very) spicy papaya salad, pad thai and fresh spring rolls. It was fairly difficult to communicate that I don’t eat meat, but the vendors found someone to translate, which was so helpful. And when they prepared the salad with shrimp, something we tried to say I don’t eat, they kindly fixed it despite my offers to take the salad as it was.
Tired but full and happy, we headed back to our hotel. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved Saigon and couldn’t think of a better place to spend my birthday.